It may come as a surprise to learn that chickens will eat eggs out of the nest boxes, but who can blame them? They’re fresh, tasty and nutritious. However, egg-eating is a habit that should be discouraged as soon as possible after discovery. Not only does it reduce the number of eggs available for collection, it is also a habit that is quickly learned by other flock members.
Many sources recommend culling (aka: physically removing or killing) an egg eating chicken from the flock, but I do not believe that culling an egg-eater is necessary. While it is a difficult habit to break, is not impossible to overcome with some easily implemented strategies.
- Innocent exploration of a broken egg in the nest box. Reasons for broken eggs in nest boxes range from the presence of too few nest boxes, more than one hen jockeying for position in a nest box, bored chickens and broody hens intimidating laying hens and monopolizing the nests.
- Improper diet (wrong feed or too many treats/scraps, not offering oyster shell in a separate hopper, etc.) can result in a lack of protein, Vitamin D or calcium deficiency, leading chickens to seek out alternate sources of nutrition.
- Stress from being disturbed or startled in the nest box can cause breakage, creating a curiosity and the opportunity for the habit to begin.
- Exposed or brightly lit nest boxes may lead to nervousness and picking at eggs. Hens prefer dark, private locations for egg-laying.
- Thirsty hens may eat eggs for the liquid. (I think this theory is a stretch, but...it's possible.)
IDENTIFYING THE CULPRITS
- The coop should be check for possible security. Predators such as rats, weasels and snakes are known egg thieves; even the smallest of holes in hardware cloth can allow an egg-eater access to the goods. If no egg thieves are identified, missing eggs are likely due to a flock member.
- Take note of activity around the nest boxes during peak egg-laying times; egg-eaters can be found loitering around them, looking for their next snack.
- Egg-eating is messy business; egg-eaters can usually be found with egg yolk on their beaks, faces or feathers.
Egg yolk on feathers is a tip-off.
Tell-tale, beak-shaped hole in egg is a clue that chickens are eating eggs from the nest boxes.
Egg yolk on beak is a dead giveaway.
PREVENTION AND REHABILITATION
- Collect eggs frequently. If eggs aren’t in the nest box, they can’t be eaten.
- Provide at least one, 12”x 12” nest box for every four hens.
- Break broody hens that are not sitting on hatching eggs to free-up nest box space.
- Move broody hens sitting on hatching eggs to a separate location, away from laying hens to free up nest box space and avoid developing embryos becoming someone’s lunch.
- Ensure adequate nest box material, which will reduce the likelihood of eggs cracking on the hard floor. Straw or plastic nest box pads are much better choices than pine shavings or hay. Employ roll-out nests, which roll eggs out of the nest when laid, removing any temptation or opportunity.
- Provide layer feed for laying hens and limit treats in order to avoid nutritional deficiencies.
- Supply oyster shell with or without crushed eggshells in a separate dish to strengthen eggshells of all layers, to meet the calcium needs of the egg-eater in particular and reduce the probability of weak-shelled eggs breaking accidentally.
- Allow hens to work, undisturbed in the morning, keeping busy children and other noises away from the hen house to minimize stress and nervous picking.
- Hang nest box curtains for laying privacy to increase privacy, reduce stress and hide eggs from snack-seekers.
- Place decoy eggs in nest boxes on the theory that pecking at an unyielding ‘egg’ will deter such conduct in the future. Decoy eggs can be ceramic eggs, golf balls, wooden eggs, plastic eggs, etc.
- Fill blown eggs with mustard and seal with a dab of paraffin. The hope is that the unpleasant flavor of the unexpected contents will deter future egg-eating. (Not a super effective method because chickens have very few taste buds.)
- Ensure access to clean, fresh drinking water at all times.
- Install roll-out nest boxes with tray inserts, which allow the egg to roll down an incline, away from the hen, as soon as it is laid.
- Ensure adequate space in the coop and run for chickens that do not free-rage. Minimum recommendations are 4 square feet per bird inside the coop and 10 square feet per bird in the run. Provide confined flocks with boredom-busting activities such as healthy treats for pecking (eg: Flock Block substitute)
My personal last resort is to segregate the egg-eater daily until the rest of the flock has finished laying eggs for the day. Worst case scenario, they eat their own eggs, but not anyone else's. Egg-eating need not be cause for culling a chicken from a backyard flock. With some minor coop revisions and changes in routine, even the most avid egg connoisseur can be rehabilitated.